Why Studying Orientalism Should Be Mandatory Today

Like, that 'hippie' white girl rocking a bindi and harem pants is actually buying into an orientalist depiction of Indian culture, one that reflects no actual understanding of its significance.

Studying the work of cultural critic Edward Said and his seminal theory of Orientalism should become, in my opinion, a rite of passage for every student.

Many students at New York University Abu Dhabi, my current place of study, agree that the prevalence of Said’s ideas on Orientalism is so enmeshed within the fabric of our curricula that it may be regarded an academic tradition – and rightly so, I say. Even if Said’s text is not assigned to us, students will certainly encounter excerpts and references to it within other academic works in their classes. This is mainly because our university preaches and practises, although still imperfectly, tolerance and intercultural understanding and integration. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more of these kinds of values being trampled in the dust, at events ranging from the tragically large to the microaggressive, like the Charlottesville incident to the gutters of YouTube comments sections. Making classes on Orientalist and other culturally-relevant theories mandatory for students, can help combat this ugly strain of intolerance, racism and xenophobia we are facing today. Education, as we know, is the ideal vehicle to awareness and then understanding, which lessens the likelihood of fearing the “other” and instead coming to completely accept them as part of “us”.

But first — what is Orientalism? According to Said, Orientalism is a construction, by the West, of the East that represents neither the actual culture nor truth of the Orient, but merely the Western idea or image of it. In other words, it is an act of ignorant romanticization, one that ascribes unreal, exotic qualities to Eastern (or other non-Western) cultures without a balanced understanding of them.

Think India, and you get glamorised depictions of lavish Bollywood numbers, glittering saris, hot curries, dripping gold jewellery and a romantic, pitiful picture of poverty on the side. Think Arabic culture, and you get rolling hot sands, desert camels, exotic perfumes and elaborate niqabs, with a dollop of equally brutal stereotypes like terrorism, sexism and ‘extreme religion’. Think Africa, and you get doleful malnourished children, their bellies like footballs, alongside monkeys, lions, a safari-worthy exhibition of savagery, rough accents, patterned head wraps, ululations and a serving of political corruption and a general sense of ‘lack’ to finish. The point is, none of these depictions are whole or true. They’re single stories, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie would say, borne from ignorance, inaccuracy, incompleteness and skewed stereotypes. These places and cultures are so much more – more complex and nuanced than these series of images and perceptions.

Still from Sex and the City 2

Orientalist ideas are often found and perpetuated in literary texts, such as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which means Said’s work regularly crops up in literature classes. They are also very much rampant in our current media, emerging in various forms. For example, when we talk about cultural appropriation, we are also talking about Orientalism. Like, that ‘hippie’ white girl rocking a bindi and harem pants is actually buying into an orientalist depiction of Indian culture, one that finds Indian ornamentation “cool” and “exotic” but reflects no actual understanding of its cultural significance. Orientalism is also studied in theater, film and social sciences, among other disciplines. Examples? Well, you can find sickening cases of Orientalism in movies like Sex and the City 2, in the Shakespearean play Othello and the entrancing modern novel Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (highly recommend this!) among others. You can also use orientalist theory for anthropological research on world cultures, race relations and other social studies on both the past and present.

A reason for Edward Said’s prevalence in my university’s classes is NYU Abu Dhabi’s aim to be a global university, founded on the inclusive principles of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. In other words, with a student body representing over 100 different nationalities together on a small island campus, it becomes important to discuss theories about interactions, both positive and negative, with people from different cultural backgrounds. But this isn’t something that should just be unique to my unusually diverse campus. Orientalist studies should be adopted in tertiary schools everywhere, and more particularly in multicultural locations or those places with many immigrants. It’s one way we can combat racial/cultural intolerance and ignorance through the realm of education.

Recently, a debate on “Anglo-centric educational privilege” and “Eurocentrism”, along with a “lack of representation of non-white, non-Euro-American … content in instructed material” at NYU Abu Dhabi stoked up intense discussions on the nature of education today and how it can be translated into our interactions with other people. Unfortunately, despite the prominent position given to Orientalism and post-colonial theory within NYU Abu Dhabi’s syllabi, we have not been able to entirely prevent  incidences of students and faculty perpetuating Orientalist and other structurally oppressive ideas — at least according to certain students. However, I believe they may have certainly reduced the number of incidents from what could have occurred if they were not there at all. Personally, my encounters with Said’s work in class has taught me immensely about how to perceive, view and discuss cultures I am not that familiar with, like the Middle East itself, which is now my place of residence.

All of this begs the question: is Said enough? Is placing texts that explain and discuss theories such as orientalism, enough to make our classrooms more global and cosmopolitan, as NYU Abu Dhabi and many other schools strive to be? These questions remain to be fully answered — but it is important that we continue to discuss them, both among students and faculty as well as mainstream media, in order to progress towards more inclusive pedagogies and thus, more inclusive societies and nations.

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Vamika Sinha
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Vamika is a student at New York University Abu Dhabi, majoring in literature and music. Although she is Indian, she grew up in Gaborone, Botswana, drinking endless coffee and watching Audrey Hepburn films. She also likes books, jazz and anime, and divides her time between libraries and cafes.

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